Song Sources: The Howling Tongue of Each Other (FAWM 2016) part 1

Since this year’s FAWM was a bit more varied song-to-song, I thought it was worth talking about all the songs.

Most of the notes here are directly from my “liner notes” posted with the songs on FAWM.org, but I’ve updated the entries with my current thoughts. I hope this proves useful to other songwriters and home recordists.

Before you click “more” I want to stress that, while I’m happy with the recordings — and some people have even paid money to download them — these are still home recordings, recorded on a lot of DIY gear, good quality budget stuff, and using comparatively simple production techniques with mostly real instruments. I think they’re good quality demos, but I can still tell the difference when I listen to something recorded in a real studio and can definitely tell the difference next to something that’s been professionally mastered.

General Writing Process

The theme words for this year were “Prominade” and “Letter.” Although they weren’t used on every track, they did inspire multiple songs (sometimes in very peculiar ways).

General Recording Information

Most of the gear used is mentioned elsewhere on this site, but here’s a quick rundown of everything that made it onto the recordings (and some new thoughts on what they were good for). There is a complete description of each of these and my thoughts on them on this page.

Instruments:
Crafters of Tennessee TN Flattop, Larrivee D-05, The DonQuixotecaster, Red Tele, Sheraton 50th Anniversary, Epiphone Viola Bass, Roland FP-5, Weber Bitterroot, some 1950s German violin, Deering Goodtime, and a shaker. The only virtual instruments are the drums.

Interface, Amps, and Preamps.
Fireface 400, Sakura Champ, DIY FET + Ge Pre, ART Pro MPA II.

Microphones.
Junco FET 47,  DIY D251, Sennheiser MK4, RE-20, Austin Ribbon, and Line Audio OM1 pair.

Pedals.
Strymon El Capistan, Bearhug Compressor, Snow Day OD, Winnie the Pooh and Some Bees, Tap Tempo Cardinal Harmonic Tremolo, Sugar Blues Wah, Ernie Ball Volume Pedal, Moss Press.

Plugins.
Logic Compressor, Klanghelm MJUC, Logic Channel and Linear Phase EQ, Logic’s Adaptive Limiter, Tokyo Dawn Kotelnikov Compressor, Tokyo Dawn Slick EQ, Tokyo Dawn Proximity, Logic’s Multipressor, Melda’s MStereoExpander, Logic Multimeter, BlueCat FreqAnalyst, Logic Rotary, Logic Tremolo, Logic Pitch Shifter, and Logic Space Designer.

Final mix/”Mastering” chain: Exciter (usually off), Proximity; Tape Delay (0ms setting); Multipressor; Kotelnikov; Linear EQ; MStereoExpander; Compressor (FET mode); iZotope Vinyl (only on certain songs); and Adaptive Limiter.

1. Flock to Home

I looked up the etymology of my first theme word and discovered that “promenade” is from a Latin term “to drive animals” (related to menace of all things), so I decided to write about a shepherd.

shepherdI worked on a sheep farm off and on when I was in high school. My German teacher and her husband raised sheep for wool. Other things I was thinking about while writing this: The pastoral story in Don Quixote (see: the electric guitar choice), that shepherd who holds the world record for long-distance running, and (weirdly) sailing songs.

I wrote the lyrics in about an hour and half on February 1, and the music in the following hour. I vowed not to overproduce it, and ended up close to doing just that. Oh well!

I’m not totally disappointed with this song, but I do think it was a weak way to start the album. It stayed as track 1 for the same of honesty — being the first thing I wrote this year. It doesn’t help that it’s pretty close to “Fairest of Them All” (the opening track on The Distance of the Moon at Daybreak), which was a better song.

The recording process was really straightforward — I just started with the acoustic, then the vocal, electric, and other overdubs.

Vocal was the D251 through the ART (low-cut at 100Hz). I wanted something a little bright since I was planning a relaxed vocal and also wanted the tiniest bit of saturation. The Tennessee was miced with a coincident pair of the ribbon (direct to interface) and the MK4 (FET pre). Ribbon panned slightly right, MK4 panned further left. The Don Quixotecaster was the neck and middle pickups (rare usage for me), ribbon (Ge preamp) close up, Junco 47 (in cardiod) about 6′ away. Pedals: Bearhug + El Capistan + Snow Day Overdrive. For the violin I used the 251 through the ART because it was already set up.

Lyrics

Flock to Home

D G D A
Here I can see over to the river
D G D A
And the yearlings grazing in the heather
D G D Dinv
A late sunrise through the misty dawn
D Bm A D
It’s morning and my love I must be gone

Chorus
D G D F#m F#m7
Not to say you can’t be on your own
D A Bm
Here there’s no one to take measure of a man
D G A Bm
So feel the breeze which ever way it blows
D G Em7 D
But every night drive the flock to home

It’s muddy boots and a dog as a companion
A little rain to keep your spirits damp
It’s weary feet and the good green earth below ’em
And when you’re home a kettle on the stove

And sometimes when the storms are blowing
And I’m without a coat despite your ways of knowing
Then I will ponder my feet beside the fire
And I’ll look to home whichever way it lies

2. Odysseus’s Letters Home

“Letter” was one of my theme words, so here’s an epistolary song.

Don’t ask me how he’s delivering them. I think it involves birds.

Listening suggestion: There’s a lot of low-end content in the 9/8 bridge and some stereo stuff, so a good pair of headphones or computer speakers with a sub would be best.

The_return_of_Ulysses

I don’t think I have to summarize the story or inspiration for this, do I?

I wrote most of the lyrics on Monday, intending it to just be a silly Eric Idle type of song, then proceeded to use up two nights doing tons and tons of layered tracks with sound effects and instrumental codas with timing changes (which are not fun to program into a DAW when you need to move parts around later, let me tell you).

Things I had fun doing:

-Shouting in a bunch of different voices. Lexa helped … I’d had more time I would have enlisted a few more friends. Lexa really got into the “run away!” and dying sounds at the end. I liked shouting “clever” in a British accent the best.

-Figuring out how to get the sounds of a battle. We ended up using the battle creator in Age of Mythology, so Lexa created a bunch of myrmadons and made them fight each other, and I shoved a microphone right up against the computer speaker to get a sample.

-Sensibly using a French phrase in a song about a Greek written in the style of an Englishman.

-Trying to create thunder. I don’t have a big piece of sheet metal, so what I did was use a midi cymbal crash and then a bunch of pitch shifters, filters, and reverb to embiggen it. And then discovered that I HAD a thunder clap sample. Oh well. I used mine as a softer sound. (Some of the sound effects came from the Apple Loops. I could have gotten cleverer with them but frankly I had close to 10 hours on the recording already when I discovered that those even existed.)

Gear and recording process notes:

Considering the song has so much content and production time, I kept things pretty simple on the recording side.

RE-20 on the acoustic through the interface (didn’t want any color on that). Vocals are all the Junco 47 through the DIY Ge preamp. Bass direct to the Ge preamp (normally the FET side is a better fit, but the Ge made it sound more “uprighty”). The electric guitars are all direct to the ART on various settings, with most of the tracks being the Sheraton.

The 3/4 instrumental was sort of written on the fly on the acoustic and then I came up with a countermelody for the electric. The bird sounds were done with a copper slide being used for tremolo “picking” (rubbing the slide on the string so it makes noise because it’s not perfectly smooth but also forms the “fret”). I first used this on something I did with Mosno (who is writing as half of @goatfish this year) in 2013. If I’d had a little more time to fool around, I would have used the “seagull” sound trick you get by hooking up a Wah pedal backwards. Oh well, maybe on the next song, which also has a nautical theme.

For the 9/8 instrumental, I did multiple layers with different guitars and panned them. Bearhug for compression as usual, various levels of delay from the El Cap and a Malekko 616, fuzz from Winnie the Pooh and Some Bees and additional overdrive from my Snow Day OD and from slamming the ART’s input.

Drums are programmed. The only drum part that I even hand-edited the midi on was the 3/4 bridge, because I needed to get the timing just right to get the cymbal swell sounds correct there. I used the Rough Rider compressor for the pumping effect (it’s SOOOOO good at that) there. I wasn’t totally happy with the drum _sound_ on the verses; I wanted something that sounded more like a jazz record, but to do that you need to use only one mic (or maybe two) on a kit from a distance, and that’s not really the sort of thing that can be done on short notice with samples. I suppose I could sum the programmed track to mono and put it in “the bathroom.”

Listening back, I regret not putting a slide whistle in the song anywhere. It slipped my mind. Oh well. Had to move on; it’s FAWM.

Random but related historical fact: Feb. 2, 1922 is the date on which Joyce’s Ulysses was first published.

Lyrics

The Odyssey

E | F#m7 | G#m7 | E
Dear Penny I am sending you this letter from the war
| E | F#m7
All the men I serve with say that I am (CLEVER!)
| E | G#m7
We believe we will succeed in our (ENDEAVOR!)
| E | F#m7
I’ve said we shouldn’t fight with force we gave it good but got it worse
| G#m7 |E
So here we are now building them a horse.
|E |F#m | B – C# – E – F# – G# – F# – C# | E
(I’ll explain at home in due and certain course!)

Dear Penny
Things haven’t gone exactly as I planned
All the men on my ship think that (WE ARE LOST!)
And this sea is awfully rough to get (ACROSST!)
I think the sea is mad at me
But I’ve been in a storm or three
This hardship surely is my perigee.
Soon I will return Penelope!

¾ bridge:
| E | |C#m |
|G#m | |C#m7 |
|E | |G#m7 |
|A |Am |E |

Dear Penny
We’ve had another setback I’m afraid
I’ve heard you’re sick of men who are (PROPOSING!)
And my son isn’t becoming that (IMPOSING!)
I would bore you with my tales of woe
Like the sirens off the starboard bow)
But I’ve surely found way to reach you, sooooo
in the meantime please accept this billet-doux!

9/8 bridge
|E |C#7 |G#m7 | F#m7
|E |C#7 |G#m7 | A Am G#m7
|E |C#7 |G#m7 | F#m7
|C5 |D5 |C#5 | E

Dear Penny
Things aren’t looking good back here at home
Looks like I have an awful mess to clean (RUN RUN!)
My spear will reinstate my home regime (AUUG!)
It’s good to hold you once again
My journey’s finally at an end
I’ve well and truly missed your company
I’m home forever now Penelope!

3. The Abandonment and Rescue of Alexander Selkirk

Alexander Selkirk is the near-certain inspiration for Robinson Crusoe. As a privateer sailing under the Captain Thomas Stradling, he had doubts about the seaworthiness of their vessel, the Cinque Ports, when they were anchored at Mas A Tierra (an island near Chile). He told Captain Stradling he would rather be left on the island than to sail on such a ship. Stradling called his bluff, and Selkirk spent the next four years and four months as the only living person on the island.

He stayed fed by hunting goats and eating turnips, stayed dry by building a couple of shacks out of pepperwood trees, and stayed sane by reading his bible.

220px-selkirk_reading_his_bibleHe was rescued in February of 1709, and spent the rest of his life variously as a buccaneer, Royal Navy man, and pirate hunter. Poems and books have been written inspired by him, so I figured what about a song?

Selkirk is often used in literary references as a prime example of, well, a noble, primal man, but with a tinge of British Imperialism. Rarely are the very rough aspects of his life mentioned: repeated arrests for assault, including of his own brother, and he probably wasn’t very welcome in his hometown of Lower Largo.

I spent a little longer than normal for a FAWM song on the lyrics. They were very challenging because I didn’t want to be matter-of-fact about reciting the history, but it’s very hard to tell a story about a person being alone. (Note that even Dafoe threw other people on the island for Crusoe to interact with!) And most of all, I really needed to find a good angle, a reason to tell a story about Selkirk beyond the simple amazing tale surviving alone on an island for four years. It turned out to be rooted in his death: He died of yellow fever on another voyage.

Selkirk led a very dangerous life, and yet he reported achieved some actual peace of mind while on the island. He had several near misses, none greater than the moment he was left on the island. So I focussed on telling a story about how someone becomes resigned to their fate. I stopped just short of telling how he died … in my head, this song is him standing on the bow of the last ship he sails on, looking out at the ocean, and feeling a little ill, and realizing he has some of the same symptoms several others on the ship have died of.

Smart cookies who know my work might recognize that most of the chord progression is very similar to last year’s pirate song (The Brigandine). I had to work a bit on the tune to make sure it sounded different.

—-

This recording nearly did me in. The really simple arrangement you hear now is the result of four incomplete recordings, including in 6/8 and 3/4, and a full-band arrangement that completely didn’t work. The 6/8 and 3/4 timings dragged even though the lyrics were written in 3/4. It just felt wrong to have all those in for the full band version. So I spent Sunday afternoon (2/7) reworking it to a single-guitar fingerpicking version, brainstormed a few licks that sounded vaguely like a reel (if I had more time, I’d compose an actual reel to be part of this), and then did about 23 “one-takes” of the song, doing the guitar and vocals at the same time, in part to internalize the lyrics and in part because I kept adjusting the mic placement, guitar playing, and just trying to get it as smooth as possible.

I was looking for some extra punch without resorting to drums or some other instrument that would clutter things up, and tried a second guitar (strummed) and a mandolin, but the banjo holding down the picking pattern (which is mirrored in the guitar) turned out to be the right call.

Vocal is the Junco 47 in cardiod through the ART with a bit of clipping. I should have used the figure 8 mode but I hadn’t figured out yet that this was the best way for me to go about it, so there’s more bleed — especially low-end bleed — in the vocal than I would like. I miced the Larrivee with the DIY ribbon through the Ge preamp. Banjo is the Junco 47 in omni mode. I needed extra sparkle, and I did the harmonies at the same time, and the 251 was already tied up. Overhead is the 251 in omni … unfortunately, I forgot to arm it during the banjo takes and didn’t notice until afterward, so I had to toss some fake room verb on the banjo. The Klanghelm handled most of the compression duties, but the acoustic has Logic’s optical compressor running as well. I had originally tried to duck the instruments when the vocals are in, but that turned out to just create some mud, so it’s actually a much simpler recording chain now than it was when I first posted it during FAWM.

I didn’t want to separate the two instruments too much because it would have put all the low frequencies in one channel, so they are nearly centered, and the reverb and a stereo expander handle the stereo imaging.

Lyrics

Bm
There’s a man on the sand with a bag in his hand
A Bm
As the sails fill and leave him behind
A Dinv A Dinv
You will never know rashness, and never know fear,
A D Bm
regret, or remorse of this kind

The son of a tanner and an unruly man
Not the kind that you’d want to admire
Cursed his captain, his god, and his best-laid plans
But mostly his own sense of pride

Bm D
Enough gunpowder to last him a year
A Bm
The bible and a good pair of shoes
D A Bm
Many fools fear the grave that they’ll lie in
A
Many more fear the blood that they’ll lose
A Bm

A cold sun on the sea and an empty horizon
And the taste of goat’s getting old
And he’s gnawed on by rats like the worm-eaten vessel
Scuttled on Columbia’s coast
There’s a rusting old musket in a pepperwood shack
It’s all wearing down over time
Sings a psalm and the songs that he sang as a child
Whatever will give peace of mind
Enough skill to keep one man alive
A knife made from the hoops of a tun
Many fools mourn the fate that they’re given
What’s it matter when all’s said and done?

And on a late summer morning in 1709
When he barely remembers his name
After four lonely years and four lonely months
Comes a ship with a flag of his home
On a boat rowed from shore by the ship’s good physician
He leaves Mas a Tierra behind
To be a captain, corsair or a king’s privateer
As long as his fate is his own
Enough gold to last him for life
His own ship to plunder the world
There are two threads of fate in each moment
And we are balanced on the edge of a sword*

4. Oh Honey (Tell Me You’ll Get Out of There)

Waits for it … waits for it …

It’s not a folk song, and it’s not a story song, but I am frigging proud of my performances on this one. Heck, I’m even proud of the drum programming.

This was inspired by an overheard conversation between two co-workers. A coworker was saying that her current-but-soon-to-be-dumped boyfriend had broken some of her things including a mug and a picture. Our reaction of course was, “DTMFA.”

Before I go any further, despite the text of the song, I want to assure everyone: my coworker is and will be fine. I’d trust her to put the guy in the hospital if he ever tried to hit her. The song isn’t based on a particular incident in real life, it’s just a “what if.” But I have friends who have been in abusive relationships and I absolutely get worked up thinking about it.

I wrote the lyrics on Monday 2/8 (finished two songs in one night, which was nice) and recorded it throughout the day on Tuesday 2/9. I wanted to experiment a little with very different rhyme schemes, the sort where it’s not obvious at all that the song even rhymes at all (and in fact, in places this one doesn’t). On the one hand it can come across as underwritten but with such limited space I had to put a lot of thought into each word.

Most of song uses a variant of the “ice cream progression” that was mentioned on the FAWM forums as a sort of prompt/challenge. Feel free to guess which song I got the G(sus4)7 from!

And the outro came about because, damn it, I wanted to play some frigging guitar. The lead guitar (including the solo) was almost a single take … I had to overdub the wah part at the end because of a software glitch in one bar.

——–

Equipment/techniques:

The vocal is through the D251. I had to have the gain up kind of high for the bass vocal parts, so the bridge through the ending I’m actually singing at the floor five feet away to avoid clipping! Lotsa air needed for that part. I hope I didn’t freak out my neighbors.

For the acoustic, I wanted to try something very strange. I set up two microphones (the RE20 and one of the OM1s) close to each other but not so close that they are matched positions. I moved them around a little until I got quite a bit of phase cancellation. This gave it a really thin, hollow sound that sounds awful on its own but actually fits okay when there’s a bass and two other guitars, as the acoustic is actually handling the “hi-hat” part during most of the song. Anyway, any frequencies you cut from one of the mics will come back in the other, and if you cut the whole thing, the other microphone sounds normal (and actually not terribly good). At first I tried physically moving the guitar while I played, but it was too hard to perform the song and do it, so I just added some tremolo to ONE of the tracks, which creates a phaser effect with a touch of dopler (since they aren’t at the same point in space, there’s a miniscule delay between the mics at higher frequencies). It sounds very different and much less intrusive than slapping an actual phaser effect on a single-miced track. Would I use it again? Maybe not. But it was fun to get it working. The best part is that while there’s a little bit of stereo spread to the two acoustic tracks, when it sums to mono, the phaser effect still happens.

The rhythm electric guitar (left speaker) is direct through the germanium and ART preamps with my Cardinal Harmonic Tremolo (tap tempo version). It’s my favorite modulation effect. I used an amp model because I was recording late at night, but I made it as close to the Sakura.

Bass is direct to the FET preamp, which sounds boring on its own but really sits nicely in a dense mix.

I then added some Rhodes (from the FP5) to finish out the rhythm section.

The lead guitar is the Don Quixotecaster through the Weener Wah, through the Bearhug and some fuzz with a touch of 1/4 note delay from the El Cap, into Sakura on the “tweed” channel, miced with a ribbon 8″ from the speaker halfway to the outer edge of the speaker and the D251 at ~4.5′.

The drums are of course programmed (I usually have Drummer fill in the basic pattern and then convert it to midi so I can edit it by hand), but I did have some fun with creating the slightly weird sounding snare. I took a sample and ran it through a short gated reverb (you know, like every 80s drum track ever), put a bit of tape delay on it, and used izotope’s Vinyl (which was free a few days ago) to warp the repeats and to take some of the air out of it.

Lyrics

C Em
Broken bottles
Am7 C
and a broken picture frame
It isn’t much
But next time it might be you
C Am7
Oh honey
Dm7 G(sus4)7 C
Please tell me you’ll get out of there

Petty quarrels
and love isn’t always safe
It isn’t fine
Just saying doesn’t make it true

Oh honey
Please tell me you’ll get out of there
Oh honey
Please tell me you’ll get out of there

C Am
You say you’re strong
Dm7 G7
I know you said
C Am
But we’re never as strong as we are in our heads
Dm G
And if he ever laid a hand on you instead …

Oh honey
Please tell me you’ll get out of there
Oh honey
Please tell me you’ll get out of there

[end wankery is just the chorus on repeat]


Part 2 here.

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